Wiki Trees and Shaking Leaves: A Cautionary Tale

Crowdsourcing a tree can be a fun diversion. It can also work. The algorithms that provide hints to an online tree on, for instance, can be useful. Connecting with someone researching a common ancestor can break down brick walls and build up family connections. But sometimes those algorithmic hints can lead you astray.

Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky is a great example. Mordeche, also known as Mordecai and Max, had seven children. He had at least four brothers.  His brothers also had many children. Online, there are numerous versions of the family tree, and almost all of them have the same mistake.

Photograph of headstone of Mordecai Hirsh Polinsky

©Renée K. Carl

Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky did not die in 1911.

Yet, the animated leaf keeps sending out hints that he did. Why? has uploaded a photograph of Mordecai Hirsh  Polinsky’s headstone at Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol Cemetery which clearly shows a death date of 30 November 1911. Same thing with The headstone must be correct – the family placed it there and it’s inscribed in stone, afterall.

The headstone is wrong.

Two other sources offer information that conflict with the headstone. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed burial permits in the newspaper, regardless if the family could afford to purchase an obituary. On 2 December 1910, the Post-Dispatch announced a burial for “Max Polinsky.” At first glance, they do not appear to be the same person, however, Max is a known Americanization of the name Mordeche, and Max was the name Mordeche used for the 1910 Census.

The second source is a death certificate for Max Polinsky. The death certificate gives the date of death as 30 November 1910. The address on the certificate matches a known address for the family. The informant on the death certificate is Max/Mordeche’s son “P. Polinsky” and his full name was signed iMordecai Hirsh death certificaten Yiddish: “Pincus Polinsky.” The burial took place on 30 November 1910 at Hamedrosh Hagadol Cemetery, the same cemetery as the headstone in the photos. The name of Max’s father listed on the death certificate is “Meyer,” the same as what is written in Hebrew on the headstone. The newspaper and the death certificate indicate a date of death in 1910, but the headstone has 1911.

Which is the correct year? 1910.

On a trip to St. Louis, I spoke with the executive director of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol. We walked together in the oldest part of the cemetery, where Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky is buried. I asked him about the stone and told him about the conflicting dates. He smiled, and explained that the stone in the photograph is not the original one. It was replaced, probably in the 1950s, as the old stones were deteriorating from age and weather. The original cemetery records from 1902–1937 were destroyed in a fire. The mistake could have been misreading the old, crumbling stone when creating the new one, or misinformation from the family.

Is a year difference a big deal? The Genealogical Proof Standard requires both a “reasonably exhaustive search” as well as a “resolution of any conflicting evidence,” so in this case, to meet the standard means to examine resources other than the headstone. Which leads to the conflicting evidence, and sorting out the proper conclusion.

So think twice before hitting “accept” on that shaking leaf, or merging a tree with another. Better yet, get out a rake, pile up the leaves, and be prepared to put many of them on the compost pile. It will avoid a small mistake, like the wrong year being added to the tree, or a big one, like the wrong person. The internet has revolutionized genealogy, but the hard work of proof remains just that, work.

What I’m Reading: Genealogy Standards, Crowdsourcing & Math

An interesting confluence of topics and ideas has emerged in some recent articles I’ve read. While I was working my way through the December 2013 issue of the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly, The New York Times published A.J. Jacobs opinion piece, “Are You My Cousin?,” and then a client pointed me to the blog post at Wait But Why titled “Your Family: Past, Present, and Future.”

What’s the connection? On the one side, it’s the Association of Professional Genealogists’ series of articles focusing on the five elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard:

•    a reasonably exhaustive search;
•    complete and accurate source citations;
•    analysis and correlation of the collected information;
•    resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
•    a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

On the other, it’s using sites like WikiTree and World Family Tree to search for famous connections, and A.J. Jacobs learning that he is related to former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg because Bloomberg is his “wife’s great-uncle’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s uncles wife’s son’s wife’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s brother’s wife’s nephew.” Got all that? These trees, like other crowdsourced Web offerings like Wikipedia, can be convenient and helpful tools, but they also have inherent traps. Records and documentation can be lacking, assumptions can be made, and tree branches might end up being spliced together in some unlikely ways.

In the middle stands the mathematics, along with graphs and drawings by Wait But Why that explain that yes, we are all cousins, somehow, since we each have 128 fifth great grandparents. Or, on average in the US, more than 300 4th cousins. That’s a pretty wide canopy on a family tree.

It can be a great conversation starter to be able to trace back 10 generations or have someone famous in your tree. I’m not dismissing crowdsourcing as a tool for genealogy – it can be incredibly useful. I’ve contacted A.J. Jacobs to see if he is my cousin, but for me, and my work as a genealogist, I’m going to check for some documentation. I know that research will not always be able to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, but I will strive to reach it.